With the end of one year and the beginning of another, many people need to decide what to do with their old computers. Whether you are a facilities manager with a palette of electronic waste or just an apartment dweller looking to clear the clutter, how to safely erase your old machine and responsibly dispose of the hardware is an issue. Below are some simple guidelines to help you.
Hardware and Data and Software, Oh My!
Hardware and software and data are the three main things to consider when disposing of old computers. Hardware is the physical equipment such as cables and monitors and the various boxes that technology involves. Software includes the manuals and installation media, while data is the individualized information you have entered into your computer system. If I have a “pismo” PowerBook G3 with my resume and credit history in Microsoft Word format the resume is data, Word is software and the PowerBook itself is hardware.
Transfer, Archive and Destroy Data
Most people who donate computers to Goodwill just hand over the box, including their personal data. Many responsible charities or resellers will immediately test the equipment and erase the hard drive, but this does not always happen. It is important, then, to identify whatever files you want to keep and to transfer them to floppy disks or zip disks, CD or a USB flash drive before you erase them.
When you “erase” or “trash” a file from your computer it is usually not destroyed, but only removed from easy access through a window manager (such as the Mac OS “Finder”) and its space on the hard drive made available for other files to over-write. Some utility programs such as Norton “Unerase” can recover these files, as various naive criminals have discovered. To make a file unrecoverable involves over-writing its space on the hard drive several times or drastic measures such as “degaussing” the hard drive, as is done for military hardware such as the US spy plane which landed on China’s Hainan Island in the spring of 2001.
For people with extremely sensitive information, there are various computer programs called “shredders” which simplify this process. Programs such as “Super Scrubber” for Mac OS will boot from a CD and use a series of military-grade wipes and over-writes to foil known methods of data recovery and remanance. In most cases the “ordinary” home user can accomplish much the same thing by simply booting from the CD which came with their computer, repartitioning the hard drive a few times and then restoring the drive to its factory-delivered state.
If you are donating or giving away a computer I strongly suggest that you find the original CD’s that came with the computer, boot from those and use the “restore” function of the CD to do this. If I am not certain that manuals and such will physically stay with the machine I normally leave this boot disk in the machine itself after shutdown, so that it is wth the machine it restores. People who are more mechanically inclined, suspicious or who cannot transfer data in other ways may prefer to physically open the machine and remove the hard drive for storage or physical destruction. For all practical purposes, disassembling a hard drive and exposing the platters will effectively render it unreadable.
Saving and Transfering Software
If you have purchased software for your computer it came with an end-user licensing agreement, or “EULA.” In most cases the EULA allows you to install the software on a single computer for your own use, and to erase the software from any computer before transfering it to someone else. If you would like to install your software on another computer, you may, and you are usually within your legal rights to sell or give the software to someone else, providing that you remove it from your own computer(s) and transfer the installation media and licenses to them. If I installed Microsoft Office 98 onto my PowerBook G3 and then later bought a full version of Office 2004, I can legally give my Office 98 CD to someone else, so long as I delete it from my computer and give them the original installation CD.
Some “upgrade” versions of software require that you keep the older copy for installation or proof of ownership, so check your software before you give it away. If you purchased a new copy of Mac OS 10.4 “Tiger” for example and installed it onto a machine which came with Mac OS 10.2 you can legally give the copy of 10.2 that came with the machine away and install your new OS onto whatever single machine you choose. If you purchased a PC with Windows 98, though, and then later upgraded it to a newer version of Windows, you must legally transfer the original software and upgrade together. Most upgrade versions of Adobe and Microsoft software are the same, so if you have purchased upgrade versions of some software it is important to save a copy of the original “full” version.
Used Computer Hardware
Sometimes it is a charity to give someone old computer hardware and sometimes it is not. Generally the more sophisticated a computer user is, the more likely they are to be able to use old hardware. Less sophisticated users are more comfortable with completely configured systems and almost no one has any use for computer hardware more than ten years old. Whether it is from the 1970’s or the latest and greatest tech gizmo, though, almost all computer hardware contains toxic materials. Even the simplest electronics are manufactured using chemicals such as lead, zinc, cadmium and mercury. When released into the environment these are toxic and so computers are frequenty classified as “electronic waste.”
Electronic waste cannot be recycled as easily as other materials, and should be disposed of responsibly. Monitors, batteries and the common “wall wart” transformers used to charge cell phones and power computers are particularly dangerous should their components leak into soil and groundwater. Like paint or other household chemicals, these should be disposed of at separate facilities. Telephone your county government for programs in your area, or consider taking your electronics to places where they will be responsibly recycled or reused.
In the Portland area we are very fortunate to have an organization called Free Geek which specializes in recycling used electronics. They ask for a small donation to defray their own disposal costs, but work with a small army of volunteers to responsibly reuse and put as many of these electronics as possible back into useful circulation. Their sister organization Mac Renewal works with them on much of the Macintosh stuff, and they have done loads of good for many years.
If your business has records in programs or formats you no longer use, it is absolutely vital that you keep copies of the hardware and programs to access those records, or to convert them to media or formats you can use in the future. In my experience, accounting and backup software is the kind that is most likely to be forgotten or abandoned until it is too late. If at all possible, printed copies of key reports (such as profit and loss statements, tax returns and general ledgers) should be made and electronic versions such as PDF or tab-delimited text files should be created and copied to new media (such as a hard drive or CD) every two years. History is littered with obsolete file formats and old media types such as 8.5″ floppies, SyQuest cartridges and so on. Making sure that your crucial data is readable on your current computers can be vital to your business, and if you have to keep an old computer in storage for this to happen, be sure you do so.
Another problem that seems peculiar to businesses is the existence of specialized equipment or software that people don’t normally think of as a “computer” or a “program.” A certain card reader for your point of sale or inventory system, for example, is usually computer equipment, although not the sort you think of. If your entire store runs on fifteen-year-old software and a PowerMac 7200 or DOS machine it is vital that you plan for this. Usually I suggest that businesses who depend on such equipment plan immediately for its repair or replacement, such as by purchasing redundant “organ donor” machines as similar to (or identical) to their current older hardware. This makes it possible to have a quick spare when one machine breaks, and planning for this now can avoid a lot of heartache later.